Flood warnings continue as Britain is hit by more storms

Environment secretary Owen Paterson accused of 'buck passing', while vast waves and strong winds batter coast

Coastal regions have again been battered by vast waves and strong winds, with renewed rain bringing over 100 flood warnings, as the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, said some councils and power firms should learn lessons from their response to the recent weeks of winter storms.

While Paterson insisted that government expenditure on flood management was higher than ever, his Labour counterpart, Maria Eagle, said it had fallen and accused Paterson of indulging in "buck passing".

By late on Monday there were still 101 Environment Agency flood warnings in place, mainly in the south-east and south-west of England and the Midlands, and 219 less serious flood alerts. While the winds and rain are forecast to ease as the week progresses, people in Dorset, Oxfordshire, south Wiltshire, Hampshire and along the Thames were warned to remain prepared for more flooding in the coming days, with rain falling on already saturated ground.

There was already flooding in parts of the Somerset Levels and rivers remained high, the agency said. It also warned of big waves and high tides on Dorset's south-west coast at Chesil beach and Chiswell, and urged people to stay away from coastal roads and paths.

Coastlines in the south and Wales were particularly badly affected by the latest band of storms, with waves above 8 metres recorded at Land's End in Cornwall, while students in Aberystwyth on the mid-Wales coast were evacuated from seafront accommodation and advised to stay away until further notice. High waves all but destroyed a historic seafront wind shelter.

Leigh-Anne Bullough, a geography student moved from her house, described the conditions as "pretty scary". The storms had seemingly eroded the ground under the wind shelter, she said: "Now the whole floor of the shelter has collapsed and it's starting to fall in. If it gets any worse I don't think it'll be there in the morning."

In a post-Christmas update to parliament on the combined impact of more than a fortnight of storms, Paterson said seven people had died in England as a result of the weather, with 1,700 properties flooded in England and 140 in Wales. In all, 750,000 people were without power at some point, with 90% reconnected within hours. While he praised the overall response to the floods and power cuts, Paterson said some organisations had done better than others.

He said: "We will undertake a full assessment over the coming weeks, but initial reports have identified a number of positive aspects, as well as areas where lessons need to be learned. While the majority of local councils and utility companies responded effectively, the response of a few left room for improvement.

"All received early warning from the Met Office and the Environment Agency that severe weather was on the way. There are lessons to be learned about how customers are supported and informed during power cuts. We welcome the additional compensation some operators have announced and acknowledge the response of some companies could have been better."

Paterson said "more is being spent than ever before" on flood protection, which would reduce the flood risk to 300,000 additional households. But responding to his statement, Eagle said the environment department's own figures showed spending on flood protection had fallen by £100m since 2010, again raising Paterson's record of questioning the impact and extent of climate change. She said: "Can the secretary of state reassure the house that his failure to protect flood defence expenditure over other potential cuts has nothing to do with his own personal scepticism about climate science?"

Eagle also questioned the efficacy of visits such as David Cameron's to Yalding in Kent on 27 December, where flooded householders told him they felt abandoned. She said: "Those affected by these floods don't need stunts, and they don't need the buck passing that we heard from the environment secretary when he put the blame on staff absent over Christmas."

A row also broke out over Cameron's claim the government will be responsible for record ever spending on flood defences. On Sunday, the prime minister said cash going towards flood defences would be "more than the previous four year period."

However, official figures show that government spending on flood defences will actually have dropped from £2.36bn in 2007-2011 to £2.32bn in 2011-2015. Asked about the discrepancy, officials admitted that the prime minister's claim of record spending includes another £148m of funding which is expected to come from the private sector.

"We're currently spending over £2.3 billion on tackling the risk of flooding and coastal erosion. Together with contributions from other partners, this is more money than ever before," a spokesman for the department of the environment, food and rural affairs said.

Friends of the Earth criticised the prime minister's "far from water-tight calculations", saying his claims do not stand up to scrutiny.


Peter Walker, Matthew Weaver and Rowena Mason

The GuardianTramp

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